BEIJING (Reuters) – Hackers linked to the Chinese government have infiltrated the Vatican’s computer networks, including the representative of the Hong Kong-based Roman Catholic Church, a US company that tracks state-backed cyberattacks said on Wednesday. .
He said the attacks started in May. The Vatican and Beijing are expected to participate in talks this year over the renewal of a landmark 2018 deal that stabilized relations between China and the Church.
US cybersecurity firm Recorded Future said in the report that the attacks targeted the Vatican and the Catholic diocese of Hong Kong, including the head of the Hong Kong Study Mission, who is seen as the de facto representative of Pope Francis in China.
The report said the targets included communications between the Hong Kong diocese and the Vatican, and used similar tools and methods previously identified with Chinese state-backed piracy groups.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin, at a daily press conference in Beijing on Wednesday, said China is a “staunch defender” of cybersecurity.
Extensive evidence is needed instead of guesswork when investigating cyber events, Wang said.
Beijing routinely denies that it is involved in state-backed piracy attempts and says it is the victim of such threats.
A Vatican spokesman had no immediate comment. The Hong Kong Study Mission did not respond to a request for comment.
Informed piracy follows an extremely rare meeting between Beijing and the Vatican’s foreign minister earlier this year in Germany, marking the highest-level official meeting between the two sides in decades.
Relations between the two have improved and they are expected to renew the two-year interim agreement on the operation of the Catholic Church in China this September.
A Chinese delegation was planning to visit the Vatican as part of the ongoing talks, but there was no indication as to whether or not they would travel due to the coronavirus outbreak, a senior Vatican source said.
The source, who spoke to Reuters before the hacking report, said it was not yet clear whether the deal would be automatically extended due to the pandemic and for how long.
Reports by Cate Cadell and Gabriel Crossley in Beijing, Greg Torode in Hong Kong and Philip Pullella in Rome; Tony Munroe, Raju Gopalakrishnan and Gareth Jones edition